TaxProf Blog

Editor: Paul L. Caron, Dean
Pepperdine University School of Law

Monday, May 12, 2014

Young Criminal Justice Lawyers in Massachusetts Are 'The Working Poor,' Shackled by Six-Figure Student Loans and Meager Salaries

Massachusetts Bar Association, Doing Right by Those Who Labor for Justice: Fair and Equitable Compensation for Attorneys Serving the Commonwealth in its Criminal Courts:

Assistant district attorneys, assistant attorneys general, public defenders, and bar advocates (lawyers appointed to defend indigents) are grossly underpaid. ... The present salaries paid to attorneys working in our criminal justice system are so inadequate that they cannot meet the financial obligations attendant to everyday, normal living. The unvarnished truth is the compensation is so poor that it drives these lawyers away from the criminal justice system or into the ranks of the working poor. ... [T]he lowest paid person in a Massachusetts courtroom is a newly minted assistant district attorney. Working up from the bottom, the next lowest paid employee in the courthouse is the custodian. And the third lowest paid person in the courtroom is the public defender. The comparative compensation of courtroom personnel speaks volumes about the stark lack of fairness:


The Commission fully appreciates that public service is a noble undertaking that entails long hours, hard work, and personal sacrifice. All prosecutors and criminal defense lawyers willingly signed on to that proposition when they selected their profession. Obviously, they have not pursued their careers to get rich. They do expect, and reasonably so, that their chosen career would compensate them sufficiently, such that they could pay off college and law school loans, afford to live away from their parents’ homes, get married, buy a house, and raise a family. The present salaries paid to attorneys working in our criminal justice system are so inadequate that they cannot meet the financial obligations attendant to everyday, normal living.

Below the fold, two young lawyers in the Massachusetts criminal justice system describe their difficult financial situations.

Public Defender
I graduated from Boston College Law School in 2007. After six and a half years as a public defender, my salary is roughly $53,600 a year. I, like my colleagues, realize many people in Massachusetts are paid less than public defenders. Every single day I work with poor people who don’t have a dime to their name. And I know many people struggle, stay in the middle class, with less than my salary. But $53,600 a year is far too low of a salary to allow me to stay with CPCS. I have over $120,000 in student loans. I have a 2003 Toyota Corolla with 128,000 miles on it. I live in a modest apartment that I share, perhaps tellingly, with another public defender from my office just to make the ends meet. I had a part-time job for five years as a public defender selling wine and liquor at a wine shop until about a year ago when I really had to leave because my social life was nonexistent and I really needed extra time to work on my cases. I live no better than I did when I was a first-year law student at BC. In fact, I probably live less well. I have no savings. I can’t save anything for retirement, and there is no end in sight. 

Staff Attorney
“My name is Cara Matern. I am a staff attorney with the Children and Family Law Division. So I represent children and parents in child abuse and neglect cases, which I would define as multi-party, complex litigation that can pretty much last years, very specific law, very, very unique rules of evidence. I explain it that way to show just how vital it is for our clients that the attorneys are well trained and experienced in child abuse and neglect. Personally, I attended Loyola University in Chicago as a child law fellow and I focused on child abuse and neglect. ...

But I know we are here to discuss salary. So I will give you a little breakdown of my stressful financial situation. My 2013 adjusted gross income was $41,254. When I last checked on Monday, I owe $177,493.57 in student loans. I will give you a little breakdown of two weeks in my life. February 28th I was paid about $1,400. I had expenses that pay period, including rent, totaling $1,215. That leaves a little under $200. Then I was paid March 13, $1,371. That pay period I had expenses totaling $1,264. That’s a little more than $100 left. I obviously have to rely on my parents a lot to supplement. And, to your point, Chairman Campbell, my dad is a retired post office worker and my mom is an RN. … I work with traumatized clients. I, myself, have been traumatized at this work, and then I go home and I worry about and have anxiety about my financial situation.

I work the extra hours that I don’t get any compensation for. I do miles of driving. I put wear and tear on my car. I’m not always sure I can even keep up with the regular upkeep for my car. Certainly if there was any sort of major repair needed, I would have to rely on my parents for that. Note on travel. I do submit a travel voucher each month, but I get 30 cents per mile. The IRS Federal rate for business travel is 56 cents per mile. I did have a second job for a little bit, but I didn’t really have time for myself, my friends, my family.

I have increased work hours and increased stress but my salary keeps the same. It is also the same as a result of where I am in my life because I can’t save any money. So I don’t know if I could afford a wedding. I definitely couldn’t start a family or buy a home. … So I don’t know if I will ever be able to afford those things. I wanted to work with families and child protection since college. I spent a lot of years and a lot of money preparing and dedicating myself for this. And it is sad, due to a lack of funding and a lack of salary, I might not be able to do this long term. I was hired in a class of 35 dedicated individuals in August of 2011. Everyone there was ready to impact the system, impact the families. Now there is only 17 of us left. And I know for a fact that that number is going to dwindle. I think it is really at the expense of our clients at the end.”

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In what state are young lawyer dumb enough that when they apply to be janitors they fail to get the jobs and have settle for being assistant prosecutors instead?
My point is that actually a job as an assistant prosecutor is quite desirable, and perhaps even overpaid in light of how many people would be willing to take it a lower price. But that might be true of janitors too, and maybe without clout the young JD's truly wouldn't have a chance at the janitor job.

Posted by: Eric Rasmusen | May 12, 2014 12:40:44 PM

I take it that given the desirability of your own position (far greater than that of an entry level prosecutor job) and the (I have no doubt) willingness of many other people to take it at a lower price point, you would agree that under 40k a year would be fair compensation for your job?

Posted by: Former Editor | May 12, 2014 1:59:48 PM

Professor of Economics, ladies and gentleman.

Assume a can opener.

Posted by: terry malloy | May 12, 2014 2:16:00 PM

Why aren't these people on income based repayment? That's who it's designed for.

Posted by: IBRProf | May 12, 2014 2:18:29 PM


1. The BC Co2007 public defender would have been subject to a $20.5k federal Stafford cap when s/he was in law school, meaning his/her loans are probably 2/3 private; in other words, IBR/PAYE/PSLF are of little consequence or meaning.

2. Have you not seen the sundry op-eds and talking points put out by various Republican Congresspeople and op-ed writers about how unfair and costly PSLF is, and how it should be repealed? And how President Obama's leading negotiating gambit is to limit forgiveness under PSLF to $57,000? I wouldn't trust the plans to go the distance. And no, those plans are NOT part of students' Master Promissory Notes - the Federal Registry makes that quite clear.

Posted by: Unemployed Northeastern | May 12, 2014 7:23:52 PM

Pretty sure both of these people are on IBR already, and at least for the staff attorney IBR represents some portion of her expenses. Servicing 177,000 of student loan debt requires about $2000 dollars each month for 10 year repayment, or $1200 for 30 year repayment. So even if she strings it out for 30 years, her loan payment alone would be almost 50% of her post tax income and would leave her with about 1500 to 1600 dollars a month for rent, food, utilities, etc. I don't see that happening, so she's probably on IBR paying about 300 dollars a month towards her loans and watching her balance creep up by about $700 bucks a month. I'd reckon she needs to pull down close to $100k a year in order to get to a point on IBR where interest won't accumulate. I'm using a rate of 6.5% interest for my back on the envelop math. In any case, I think the staff attorney represents a good example of the typical rock and a hard place that IBR puts students in. She can make minimum payments, but her balance will continue to balloon over the next 25 years, but on the other hand if she makes more money her payments will increase proportionally. The only hope as I see it is if working at the PD counts as public interest so that she can discharge the remainder of her balance after 10 years, in which case it's + Expected Value for her to make as small of payments as necessary because she's just accruing interest on her loans. In 10 years she owes $257k, it's all forgiven tax free (for her), Uncle Sam picks up the tab, and she starts saving/her life in her hopefully mid-to-late 30s or early 40s.

Posted by: bada-bing | May 12, 2014 9:13:33 PM